Across state line from East Palestine, repeated air permit violations at a petrochemical plant

By Dana Drugmand

On the afternoon of February 13, just 10 days after the Norfolk Southern train transporting hazardous chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, a Shell petrochemical plant located less than 30 miles away in Pennsylvania began flaring and spewing black smoke into the air for several hours. The polluting plume and fiery orange flare raised alarm among local residents and watchdog groups that have been monitoring the facility, which began full operations on November 15, 2022. It was not the first time the plant had flared since coming online, but the large plumes of black smoke and lack of an immediate response from the company, let alone an advanced warning, added to mounting concerns about the plant’s ability to operate safely and in compliance with its own air permit.

The February 13 flaring incident started around 3:30pm. About an hour had passed before Shell posted an update on Facebook explaining that elevated flares are a safety response to equipment malfunctions, adding that flaring was “expected to continue through the evening as equipment is returned back to normal operation.” Shell has yet to submit an official malfunction report for this incident, which violates legal prohibitions on visible emissions from the plant’s flares and incinerators.

Shell’s 386-acre facility, located on the banks of the Ohio River in Beaver County, Pennsylvania near the town of Monaca, is the largest plastics production plant in the Northeast and Shell’s largest petrochemical facility outside of the Gulf Coast. The plant uses a process called “cracking” to convert the natural gas liquid ethane into the petrochemical ethylene, a building block for fossil fuel-derived plastic production.

Since announcing the commencement of operations in November, the Shell Polymers Monaca facility has experienced repeated malfunctions and emergency flaring episodes and has continually violated the conditions of its state-issued air permit. In its first 100 days the plant has submitted at least seven malfunction reports to state regulators and has received three Notices of Violation from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

“Shell’s illegal pollution, continued flaring events, and atrocious disregard for environmental regulations in just its first 100 days of operations pose an unacceptable risk to workers and communities living near the petrochemical complex,” Anais Peterson, petrochemical campaigner at Earthworks, said in a statement.

As a result of the multiple malfunctions and flaring events, the plant is emitting excess carbon pollution and other pollutants like volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides (NOx). On the day the facility opened there was a malfunction resulting in estimated excess emissions that included 721 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent and approximately 2 tons of VOCs, according to the company’s malfunction report submitted a month later. Even before the plant came online, it reported numerous malfunctions and experienced elevated emissions. On December 14, the Pennsylvania DEP issued Shell a Notice of Violation for excess VOC emissions. As the notice indicates, the facility’s reported VOC emissions for the 12-month period ending in October 2022 were 662.9 tons, which exceeds the 516.2-ton limit conditioned in Shell’s permit.